Friday, February 20, 2009

Monte Cristo's Opening

“On the 24th of February 1815, the lookout at Notre-Dame de la Garde signaled the three-master, the Pharaon from Smyrna, Trieste and Naples.”

The above sentence represents the opening to “The Count of Monte Cristo,” which we’ve been examining lately. Our goal: glean knowledge from my favorite story.
At first glance, this seems like a terribly uninspiring first sentence. It’s way too complicated and filled with unfamiliar places. The Pharaon, incidentally, is the name of the hero’s ship, and “three-master” refers to the Pharaon having three masts. The Notre-Dame de la Garde is a basilica Neo-Byzantine church in Marseille, France (pictured above courtesy of Wiki).

From a positive standpoint, we learn the scene’s setting. The definitiveness of the places likely helped Dumas’ French readers identify visual images and preconceptions. They would have known this was Marseille.
My thoughts return to the details. Initially, I thought these overly done and a detraction. On further study, I recollect other authors’ use of vague places. Vagueness denotes (to me) a lack of confidence.
By asserting that the lookout is at Notre-Dame de la Garde and that the ship hails from Smyrna, Dumas sends his readers a message that their storyteller controls all facets of his story. He is not an amateur but rather, a knowing, meticulous professional who will treat them to a vivid and well thought out tale. Writing and reading historical fiction and fantasy, I run across vagueness often. It’s much easier to reference a country than research (or for fantasy, fabricate) a specific city.

In addition to establishing the setting, Dumas also sets the narrator’s tone. Our storyteller will be straightforward and factual and knowledgeable of many things. I find myself sinking into his story just reflecting further on this first sentence. I can hear one of those rich-voiced audio book narrators saying the words even as I type.

I’ll conclude. Here’s how a less specific version might have read: “In early 1815, the city’s lookout signaled Edmond Dante’s ship coming from Italy.” This simplified version reads easier, but I prefer Dumas’ choice. What about you?


  1. What a really fascinating way to dissect and look at the first sentence. Who would have thought it had so much meaning in it!!!!!

  2. I think it'll be fun to look at some other first sentences of famous books as well. If there is one sentence in the entire book that is intentional, it's bound to be the first.